Musix Newsletter #16 • Spring 2011
I’m trying to start a new trend: Spring Resolutions. They make more sense to me than New Year’s resolutions. Afterall, in Spring everything is waking up, starting to grow again. It seems like a great time to resolve to do a thing or two differently.

For my Spring resolution, I resolved to post Musix Newsletters a bit more often. I figured that to facilitate that I need to make them into a more manageable size, say two, three, or four, pieces of music per. So, in planning Musix Newsletter #16 I instantly broke the size rule! It’s just that I sit down with a piece of paper and start to make a list of things to include and this song or technique makes me think of another song or technique that would be great to demonstrate, and it grows from there. But I haven’t given up, I’m still going to try to keep the Musix Newsletters smaller and post them more often.

I don’t know that this has anything to do with Spring but the majority of the entries in Musix Newsletter #16 have to do with playing backup. Playing backup that’s tasteful and appropriate is an essential skill to develop. It’s always a question of what to play and when. We’ll look at some examples. We’ll also explore a couple of lead things, one bluegrass/folky, one swing/jazz, plus a lesson on moveable mandolin chords. Let’s start with a bluesy backup that combines a bass line with rhythmic strums.

Blues guitar: Backup technique using bass line and strums on “Key to the Highway.” I recently wrote a column for Flatpicking Guitar Magazine which explored a guitar backup technique that combines a walking boogie bass line with strums. It works great for backing up vocals with a 1950s rockabilly groove. As I played through it I got to thinking that by slowing it down and modifying the feel a bit it would make a great blues backup groove. It’s written in the key of E but with a little work could be transposed to other keys. The key of A would be a natural.

It’ll work with just about any set of blues chord changes (I — IV — I — V — I) in the key of E. I decided to set it to a slightly different blues progression, one that goes from the I (E) to the V (B7) to the IV (A) instead of the more common blues changes of I to IV to I, etc. The arrangement below will work on songs like “Key to the Highway.”

We count this type of eighth note rhythm as “one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and.” We’ll play bass notes on beats “one,” “two,” “three,” and “four,” and strums on all the “ands” in between the numbers. Play the bass notes with a down pick and all the strums with up picks.

To play both the chord and the bass line, we’ll fudge a little bit on some of the chord fingerings and won’t play full five or six string chord strums. If you can’t hold a chord as it’s shown, the E for example, where you fret two strings with your second finger, add an additional finger. If you do that you’ll have to move in and out of the chord form to facilitate both the chord and the bass line. The good news is that the chord strums are all partials and you’ll play only two or three strings — the fourth, fifth, and sixth — on your up strum.

Suggested fretting hand fingerings are shown between the standard notation and the tablature line. Your fourth finger will have to do a lot of work. Some of the passages will require finger stretches.

Speaking of stretches, the A chord might be a challenge, this time for your third finger, but it is doable with a little practice. Make the A chord with a first finger barre on strings two, three, and four. It won’t matter if you mute the first string since it’s not part of either the bass line or the strum we’re using.

As always, practice the technique slowly at first. Concentrate on coordinating your fingers and hands and work toward a clear bass line. Again, don’t be too concerned that the strums ring out. A little muting is OK. We’re going more for the rhythmic content than the harmonic.

You can download an MP3 of me playing this arrangement. To save space and bandwidth on the website, it’s presented at one speed. On the CDs that accompany my books, we always record everything at both slow and regular speeds. If you’re interested in blues guitar techniques and songs, you’ll like my book/CD set BackUP TRAX: Basic Blues for Guitar. It teaches 14 basic blues tunes and grooves in a variety of keys and blues sub-styles (Country and Urban Blues, Acoustic and Electric Blues, Delta Blues, Texas Blues, Chicago Blues, Slide Guitar Blues, Alternate Tuning). Everything from the book is on the CD at both slow and regular speeds. The approach is that you learn by playing along (rhythm chords, leads, solos you make up, and techniques) with the recorded band. It’s so much fun you’ll hardly be able to stand it!

Blues guitar: Backup technique Sheet Music pdf
Blues guitar: Backup technique MP3

Bluegrass/Old Time/Country Backup Guitar: “Take This Hammer.”
Let’s stay with the guitar for now and learn a backup part for the bluegrass classic “Take This Hammer.” Thousands of songs in the Bluegrass and Old Time repertoire have a call and response structure. There’ll be a vocal statement and then a space followed by another vocal statement and another space. If we fill in the spaces with an instrumental riff we end up with the call and response: the vocal phrase is the call, the instrumental fill is the response. These types of songs are great to practice backup playing on because it’s quite clear where to play and where not to play. I included a large number of them in my Parking Lot Picker’s Songbooks. (Click the covers or links on the right for more information.) These are songs like “Banks of the Ohio,” “A Beautiful Life,” “The Bluebirds are Singing for Me,”  “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” “East Virginia Blues,” “Katy Cline,” “Nine Pound Hammer,” “Roll on Buddy,” and “Take This Hammer,” among many, many others.

The guitar backup part uses bass notes, strums, and a few typical bass runs. The idea of this style of backup is to set up a call and response with the vocal. In designing the part I tried to play passages that complemented the vocal but didn’t compete or overwhelm it. These are good criteria for other kinds of backup techniques also. You don’t want to draw attention to your backup but rather you want it to serve the ensemble sound whether you’re part of a band or backing your own vocal.

Try this same approach on other songs in the style. All of those listed above are included in my Parking Lot Picker’s Songbook. Try practicing this exact part, in the key of G, by playing along with the songs on the 2CDs that come packaged with every Parking Lot Picker’s Songbook. The more you do it, the easier it will become. As you get more used to the technique, you’ll probably start adding your own touches and improvisations.

Backup Guitar: “Take This Hammer” pdf
Backup Guitar: “Take This Hammer” MP3

Bluegrass/Old Time/Country Backup Mandolin: “Take This Hammer.”

Let’s move on to the mandolin but stay with “Take This Hammer” and explore two different backup parts. In both cases we’ll still be playing what’s essentially a call and response part. If you haven’t already done so, read the text above pertaining to the guitar backup part. Much of the information will apply to the mandolin.

Backup #1 features continual eighth note playing that kind of emerges from behind the vocal when the spaces present themselves. While playing at the same time that the vocalist is singing, you need to be especially careful not to compete with the singer. Bring your volume down and then back up again when you fill the spaces. You won’t play any chordal backbeats in Backup #1.

The main difference between Backup #2 and Backup #1 is that Backup #2 leaves spaces for a chordal backbeat or “chop” while the singer sings. I wrote these as half rests in the music and you can fit one backbeat in on beat two. It can be challenging to perform the transition from chords to lead and back again but it’s very important that you learn how to do it. Here’s your chance!

“Take This Hammer” is included in my Parking Lot Picker’s Songbooks.


Jazz/Swing/Bluegrass Mandolin Chords: Cycle of Fifths. I recently taught at the California Bluegrass Association’s Winter Music Camp and had a wonderful time. Great people, lots of fun, and there were some incredible students in my classes. I taught Level Three Mandolin, which was the advanced class, so abilities and interests were all over the map. I always try to cover a little bit of what each student is interested in and there’s always interest in playing Swing and Jazz. I taught this lesson to the class and thought you might like to work through it as well.

One of the most important concepts of the Swing/Jazz rhythm style is the use of closed position moveable chords, just like with bluegrass rhythm. And, because so many of the songs include these types of chord passages, the cycle of fifths progression (e.g. E7, A7, D7, G in the key of G) is one of the most used and important to know. This same progression is also very useful in bluegrass and old time music and we’ll like at those styles too in the course of this lesson.

First of all, why do we call it a “cycle of fifths” progression? Well I’ll be a dirty bird if I know for sure, but I’ll tell you what I think. Chords like E7, Bb7, A7, D7, etc. are “dominant” or “dominant seven” chords. They function as a V (“five”) chord in a progression and pull it somewhere. That somewhere is toward resolution to the chord’s associated I (“one”) chord. Dominant 7 chords have a lot of internal tension that’s begging to be resolved to a I. And, each dominant or V chord has a specific I that it wants to resolve to. It could be major or minor, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll just look at major I chords for now. Once you’ve identified a V chord, all you have to do to find the I is to count back alphabetically on your fingers, five to one. If we start with D7 as the five, C is four, B is three, A is two, and G is one. You will have to allow for sharps and flats in some keys but this idea outlines the basic theory. For the complete picture, download my Scale and Chord Chart. It shows all the scale tones, the chords we make from scales and keys, and all the numerical relationships between the chords in keys. From this chart we can see that E7 resolves to A, Bb7 resolves to Eb, A7 resolves to D and so on.

In a cycle of fifths progression the chords are dominant sevens and could be described as V chords. However, they might not actually resolve to a I until the end of a phrase. In the progression E7, A7, D7, G, our ears hear the E7 and expect the progression to resolve to the A. But when we get there, the chord is an A7, which is the V of a new key begging to be resolved to a new I, in this case a D. But guess what? When we get to the next chord change it’s another dominant chord, a D7. There’s been no resolution. We still have that tension. Finally, with the last move from D7 to G at the end of the musical phrase, we have resolution.

As I mentioned, this cycle of fifths progression is all over the swing and jazz repertoire. Whole songs are built on it and many songs use it for a part of the song. “Sweet Georgia Brown” is the classic song that everyone wants to know that makes liberal use of the cycle of fifths progression. We’ll get to “Sweet Georgia Brown” directly.

Aside from swing and jazz, the cycle of fifths progression is also well used in pop, country, rock, and bluegrass/old time. We’ll run through a few on the MP3 recording.

The mandolin chords shown are three string/note chords and move through the cycle of fifths progression with just the move of a finger or two. These positions yield tight chord voicings and sound great as rhythm. Learn them in as many keys as you can, starting with the keys of G and F shown. The key of G set is demonstrated on the MP3 on the bluegrass and old time classics “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” and “Salty Dog Blues.”

“Sweet Georgia Brown,” after over 80 years in the pop culture, is still played and enjoyed wherever musicians gather to jam or perform. It too has a cycle of fifths progression, here in the key of F. You’ll notice that the progression changes to Dm in the last eight measures which are shown in the bottom two rows of the box chart.

Each box in the chart represents one measure or four beats. You’ll play two chord strums per box/measure, on beats two and four. For the key of F, you’ll use the basic chords in the same order, you’ll just play them down one whole step or two frets. After you’ve reviewed the chords, try playing along with me on the MP3. The chords changes to “Sweet Georgia Brown” are included in an etude in my BackUP TRAX: Swing & Jazz book/CD set. “Salty Dog Blues” is in my BackUP TRAX: Old Time & Fiddle Tunes book/CD set. Chords, melodies, and playing tips are also in the books and the CD has a great play-along band performing the chord progressions several times through. You learn by playing along, rhythm or lead, and making it into your band. We’ll jam all night long! My two volumes of Gypsy Swing & Hot Club Rhythm (for guitar) (for mandolin) have a similar play-along setup and many different songs with cycle of fifths progressions. If you’re interested in swing and jazz music these books will get you swinging in no time. My Swing & Jazz Mandolin DVD is also available and we currently have a special price if you order the DVD with one of the Gypsy Swing books.

The cycle of fifths progression is often referred to as a “I (one) — VI (six)  — II (two)  — V (five)”  progression. Let’s look again at the chords to “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” and “Salty Dog Blues” in the key of G. Musicians play slightly different versions of the chords: some start on the G chord and some the E7. Let’s look at both cases. If we start the progression on the G we have: G — E7 — A7 — D7 — G. Relative to the I, in this case the G, the E7 is a six chord, the A7 a two, the D7 a five. That’s where the “I — VI —II —V” comes from. If we don’t start the progression with the G we have: E7 — A7 — D7 — G where the E7 is a six chord, the A7 a two, the D7 a five. The essence is still “I — VI —II —V” and even though the I seems to be missing, it’s still implied.

The cycle of fifths progression will serve you very well in a variety of musical styles. And, they way it unfolds in that tight little mandolin region is cooler than the other side of the pillow. Learn to use it and you’ll add a lot to your bluegrass, old time, and swing/jazz playing.


Guitar lead: The Wayfaring Stranger. “The Wayfaring Stranger” is another song from my Parking Lot Picker’s Songbook and the melody can be used to compose a wonderful solo. I simplified the melody somewhat and took out all of the eighth notes to make it easier to play. If you’re a beginning or intermediate flatpicker just learning leads, “The Wayfaring Stranger” won’t give you too hard a time.

You’ll notice some hammer ons into the fourth string, second fret E note. If they give you any trouble, leave them out for now. Once you’re comfortable with the solo, add them back in as they provide a very nice ornamentation. You might also look for other occurrences of this E note and add in the hammers at those points too.

Play the solo slowly at first and make it your goal to memorize it. Listen to the MP3 to get an idea of how it should sound.

If you don’t have your copy of The Parking Lot Picker’s Songbook yet, don’t delay! It’s got a ton of great songs played by bluegrass, old time, and folk players all over the world. It’s a great source for bands, jammers, and performing musicians. And, we have five editions to choose from: guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and dobro, all with the same songs (TAB configured differently for each instrument) so you can jam with the whole band, all night long!

Guitar Lead: The Wayfaring Stranger pdf
Guitar Lead: The Wayfaring Stranger MP3

Swing & Jazz Guitar: Solo for (Back Home Again in) Indiana. If you’re like most players you first learn the chords to a new song. After that you learn the melody. As soon as you learn the melody, you want to start improvising and playing solos. The question is always, “What do I play next.” It’s hard to know where to begin. When I was a younger player, the older guys always told me to start with the melody. They explained that the process of jazz amounted to taking a set melody and working off it, adding to it, taking it to different places. The distance one travels from the basic melody depends upon the player and the style of jazz he or she is playing. These older musicians referred to the process as “take off” where they’d “take off” from the melody. To them “take off” equaled improvisation and improvisation equaled jazz.

One of these days I want to publish companion book/CD sets of solos to the songs included in my Gypsy Swing & Hot Club Rhythm sets, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 (for both guitar 1, guitar 2, mandolin 1, and mandolin 2) to give players some ideas of where to start with their own improvisations. I recently wrote out the guitar solo below for “(Back Home Again in) Indiana.” I have some other solos in the swing/jazz style for mandolin that I’ll include in future Musix Newsletters.

“Indiana” is one of those standards songs that everybody who plays swing & jazz knows. Musicians just love to play it. It’s a classic and if you’re interested in swing & jazz, you need to know it backwards and forwards, chords to melody to improvisational solos. Don’t worry though, it’s really a fun song once you figure it out.

In composing this solo I played along with the “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” band recording included in Gypsy Swing & Hot Club Rhythm for guitar Vol. 2. You’ll hear the band on the MP3 I made of the solo. The recording features a Hot Club-style rhythm section, 2 guitars plus string bass, that plays the song through several times. I played the melody pretty much as written in the book several times until I could play it from memory. Eventually little changes from the melody started presenting themselves. At first they were little rhythmic changes but eventually I started adding some melodic changes as well. Not big changes, mind you, but just enough to keep me interested in the song and developing my own take on it. As you’ll see, the melody is still foremost in the solo and that was my intention.

When I play along with the Gypsy Swing & Hot Club Rhythm recordings — at least when I’m “practicing” with the CDs as opposed to just having fun —I try to have a goal before I begin. Sometimes I work on the melody in the octave written in the book or the octave above or below that. Or, I might work on leaving the melody completely behind. Or I might try to solo using arpeggios of the accompaniment chords, or maybe I’ll try to work out a chord melody (we’ll have a few of those coming in future Musix Newsletters) or I’ll work on playing a solo with octaves. In this case my goal was to compose a solo that heavily favored the melody. I wanted any listener familiar with the melody to “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” to be able to recognize it in my solo.

You’ll find two MP3s of the solo, one at the slow speed and one at regular speed with the band. You’ll find the same setup with both volumes of Gypsy Swing & Hot Club Rhythm. Fingering suggestions are shown in the music. For the most part the solo is composed of single string notes but I played some double stops and chords beginning in measure 26. I hope you have fun with it. I sure did! We have a special price if you buy two of the Gypsy Swing & Hot Club Rhythm sets, mix or match volumes or instruments. We also have a few slightly shopworn copies available at a great price. A couple of boxes got dropped in shipment and corners got slightly ruffled. Other than that the shopworn copies are as complete and perfect as the regular priced copies. We prefer to think of these shopworn copies as “cosmetically challenged.” So, if you don’t mind a little “cosmetic challenging” you can save a few bucks on the Gypsy Swing & Hot Club Rhythm sets, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 (for both guitar 1, guitar 2, mandolin 1, and mandolin 2). Let’s get swingin’!

Swing & Jazz Guitar: Solo for (Back Home Again in) Indiana pdf

Swing & Jazz Guitar: Solo for (Back Home Again in) Indiana Slow Speed MP3

Swing & Jazz Guitar: Solo for (Back Home Again in) Indiana Regular Speed MP3

Don’t forget to peruse all the other fifteen newsletters plus the items posted on our downloads page.

Happy Spring! Dix Bruce